FBI recovers stolen Matisse at Miami Beach hotel

$3 million painting stolen from Venezuelan museum, missing for at least 10 years

MIAMI - A $3 million Henri Matisse painting stolen from a Venezuelan museum in 2003 was sold to undercover federal agents at a Miami Beach hotel Tuesday, Local 10 has learned exclusively.

In January 2003, officials at the Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum in Caracas announced that a Henri Matisse painting called "Odalisque in Red Pants" was stolen and replaced with a forgery at least three years earlier.

Agents from Interpol, the FBI and Venezuelan, British, Spanish and French police have since searched for the 1925 painting.

"You can't just make the switch freely inside the museum," director Rita Salvestrini told the Associated Press in 2003. "There had to be inside complicity."

For nearly 10 years, no one knew where the original painting was, until Tuesday, when a man and a woman sold it to FBI agents for $1.5 million at the Loews Hotel, sources said.

There are notable differences between the original and the replica, which Salvestrini displayed at a news conference. The fake has a dark shadow behind the dancer; the original doesn't. In the lower right corner, the genuine one has seven green stripes. The fake has six.

The Sofia Imber museum purchased the painting from the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1981 for $400,000. It was on display ever since, except for a brief loan for a Spanish exhibition in 1997.

In November 2002, Miami art collector Genaro Ambrosino, a Venezuela native, sent an email to Salvestrini expressing indignation that he heard the piece was up for sale. Salvestrini quickly denied it. The painting was in the museum, she said.

A month later, however, experts discovered that the painting the museum was a forgery. Salvestrini said the Sotheby's office in Miami sent her a copy of a document supposedly authorizing its sale on behalf of museum founder Sofia Imber, who was forced to resign in 2001 as part of a people's "cultural revolution" by the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chavez. The document was signed by Agueda Hernandez and Edmundo Diquez, museum employees who quit with Imber. Officials now believe the document was forged, Salvestrini said.

In mid-December, the FBI confirmed that a Venezuelan woman who lived in Miami Beach had stored the painting at Fortress Art Storage in Miami. The FBI suspects the woman then smuggled it to Spain, although French police are investigating leads that a collector brought it to France. The woman's identity was withheld pending the investigation.

The Caracas newspaper El Mundo speculated that the Matisse may have been swapped during the 1997 Spanish exhibition loan. Other clues suggest the painting was stolen as far back as 2000. French police interrogated Wanda de Guebriant, a French Matisse expert. Guebriant told them that a New York gallery owner informed her in October 2000 that "Odalisque in Red Pants" was being offered for sale in New York. Investigators have refused to identify the gallery owner. Guebriant told police at the time she believed the one in New York must be a fake and that the original was in the Caracas museum. In February 2001, she said, she was approached by French gallery owners saying they had been offered the painting.

"The people who knew that the piece was being circulated around the world never informed us," Salvestrini said. "The thing is, it didn't occur to anyone the piece could have been authentic."

The man and the woman accused of trying to sell the painting in Miami Beach face charges including interstate transport of stolen property and sale and possession of stolen property. They are expected to appear in federal court Wednesday.

Copyright 2012 by Post Newsweek. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.